Tuesday, 20 September 2016

De Palma

Brian De Palma is not a man who has issues calling a spade a spade. If he could, not only would he call a spade a spade, but he would put a wig and a dress on the spade and follow it round with a Steadicam for sixteen minutes while having John Lithgow shout "SPADE!" at it, such is his penchant for frankness. All of which is to be celebrated, because it's this frankness that makes De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's celebration of one of their movie-making idols, such a fun watch.

Plonked in front of an unassuming fireplace in one of the least De Palma-esque shots it's possible to compose, the 76-year-old director opens up about the highs and lows of his career over 110 minutes of delicious tittle-tattle and self-deprecation, while his interrogators regularly intersperse the chatter with clips from his remarkable 50-year filmography. It's as prosaic a format for a talking head as you could get, but it doesn't matter a hoot: firstly, BDP is so comfortably avuncular you just want to bathe in the glow of his chubby cheeks and tales of Hollywood madness, and secondly, most of the clips are so exhaustingly kinetic that anything more exciting than a septuagenarian in front of a fireplace would wear you out by the halfway mark.
Navigating De Palma's career chronologically and methodically, Baumbach and Paltrow tease out some tremendous nuggets of gossip. Precious actors are not rare in movie history, but evidence of their preciousness from their own directors is, so there's immense pleasure to be had in De Palma's bean-spilling over Orson Welles and Robert De Niro's unwillingness to learn their lines, Sean Connery's reaction to getting dust in his eye while filming a brutal death scene, or Cliff Robertson's questionably orange face in Obsession. Behind-the-camera squabbles are willingly aired too: juggling both David Koepp and Robert Towne's conflicting scripts for Tom Cruise's producing debut Mission: Impossible seems like it must have been, well, some kind of Task: Unachievable, and you boggle at how the film ever got made, let alone ended up as good as it did.

It's not all scandal and scuttlebutt though: De Palma talks at length about the difficulty of swimming against the Hollywood tide, particularly in the context of his movie brat friends Marty, George, Francis and Steven. "What we did in our generation will never be duplicated," he proudly boasts, but fully admits that his path was not necessarily as successfully navigated as those of his contemporaries. "I'm driven by unrealistic ideas [...] my movies tend to upset people a lot," he understates while musing on some of his frankly numerous critical and commercial failures. But his sheer energy and ambition shine through, emanating from the same well of indomitability that makes all his films fascinating to watch even when they spectacularly fail.
The De Palma process gets a good going over too, with split screens, split diopters, long takes and ludicrously elongated build-ups to comically overblown climaxes all covered by the man who made a lurid, lip-smacking art form out of a combination of all of them. Where it worked, De Palma allows himself a smile (the section on Carrie sees him deliver a glorious takedown of every successive project based on it), and where it didn't, he pragmatically shrugs and moves on. "It did good, it didn't do great" seems to be his career in a nutshell, yet at no point does he appear regretful or bitter.

Baumbach and Paltrow bookend their film with clips from Vertigo, and not without good cause: De Palma's well-documented love of Alfred Hitchcock not only set him on his way but has also been the source of some of his fiercest criticism. He ends the interview with a rousing defence of his decision to frequently homage the master of suspense so blatantly, and it's hard to counter the argument without coming across as the dullest of sticks. Ultimately though, his work speaks for itself and for him, and the carefully curated clips within this loving tribute illustrate this. As a document of its subject's fury, obsession and passion, De Palma is untouchable.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi has built a respectable rep over the last few years, to the point where he may well find himself nestled snugly between Peter Jackson and Jane Campion in the category "Vaguely Well-Known Film Directors From New Zealand" on a future episode of Pointless (if not in real life, I don't know how close these guys are). Marvel Big Nob Kevin Feige has so much faith in him that he's handed him the keys to the Thor franchise, and if Waititi's CV is anything to go by, the drapes-wearing Norse god's third solo outing will be exactly as serious as its subject matter demands, i.e. not remotely.

I'm very happy about all this, because Taika Waititi seems like a decent chap, and he certainly makes interesting films. I'm just not quite sure if they're *good* enough, and while I don't really care a right lot about whether or not Thor: Ragnarok is premium Marvelry, I wouldn't want a bad blockbuster to have an adverse affect on a promising career, because I still think Waititi's best film is ahead of him. All of which is an inordinately long-winded and convoluted way of saying that Hunt For The Wilderpeople is fine but could have been better. I don't know why I didn't just say that to begin with. Sorry.
Firmly in the tradition of Delightfully Quirky Indie Films Made In Places Where Everyone Talks Funny, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is very much all of those things. Unhealthily rotund tween Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a kid nobody wants around them, while Sam Neill is Hector Faulkner, a gruff old bugger who wants nobody around him. Thrown together and placed in an extreme situation, the pair form an unlikely bond (well, unlikely if you've never seen a film in which two mismatched people are thrown together and placed in an extreme situation), undergoing an episodic bush-based odyssey that forces them to truly find themselves and yadda yadda yadda. Waititi knows his characters' arcs won't surprise anyone, so his job is to make their journey as Delightfully Quirky as possible, and at that he more or less succeeds.

Neill and Dennison are a joy to watch, tramping through the wilderness like Up's Carl and Russell made flesh. Neill's beard and chunky-knit sweaters made me want him to hold me throughout the entire winter, while Dennison is a 12A version of Summer Heights High's gloriously awful Jonah Takalua, a wannabe gangsta who composes half-baked haikus as a form of anger management. Supporting characters are mostly successful, not least Rachel House's unbalanced social worker Paula, although what seems like an obligatory cameo from Rhys Darby (alumnus of Waititi projects Flight Of The Conchords and What We Do In The Shadows) feels like it stumbled in from a much broader comedy.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople's appeal stems more from its situation than its comedy (one incident recalls The Revenant, probably inadvertently but no less amusing for it), to the point where a good proportion of the jokes stumble when a more honed script and tighter direction and editing could have made them soar. I suspect I'm in a minority, but I had this problem with Waititi's Eagle vs Shark and What We Do In The Shadows: great ideas that just felt a little lacking in the execution. Characterisation is the director's strongest point though, and - like those earlier films - Wilderpeople boasts enough of that to forgive it its flaws. And if Waititi can find a part for Dennison in Thor: Ragnarok, I'll forgive him anything.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The summer of '16: fine

Top Cat Begins not included

Prickled by a nagging suspicion that the summer of 2016 was going to be one of the worst times to be in a cinema since the day someone cracked one off watching Skyfall, I made the decision in May to take a semi-earned sabbatical from this year's blockbuster season. This accounts for The Incredible Suit's sole remaining reader having to look at a still from X-Men: Apocalypse every time they visited the blog in the last four months, and for that I apologise.

It didn't last, though. Like when you pass a horrific car accident on the motorway so get off at the next exit and come back for a better look and a few selfies (come on, we all do it), I couldn't resist finding out exactly what was so grim about this summer, so I binge-watched much of it in the last couple of weeks. Turns out it hasn't actually been apocalyptically bad, so much as just stultifyingly average. Not a single one of these films has improved my existence, and only one of them made me want to scoop out my eyeballs, although I have thus far avoided Suicide Squad. So here's a look back at some of the humdrummery that's passed for entertainment in cinemas recently, which might come across as an exercise in futility but does at least get rid of that X-Men: Apocalypse still.

The Nice Guys
If I could wish for the movie of my dreams, it would probably be a '70s-set buddy action comedy written and directed by Shane Black and starring Ryan Gosling and Hugh Jackman. Eh, four out of five ain't bad. So it's kind of upsetting that I didn't care much for The Nice Guys: an unexceptional plot, precious little action or comedy for an action comedy (although Gosling at last gets to prove he can do funny), damp squibs of dialogue that should have sparked fireworks and a general sense of low-key mediocrity. Struggling to remember anything about it now, except for one hilariously sick shot that was in the trailer so doesn't count. Not terrible, but way short of the movie of my dreams.

The Neon Demon
This isn't a film, it's a Fuck You, with NWR finally (and quite deliberately) becoming the thing his critics have been accusing him of for years: a vain, surface-obsessed director wanking himself silly over the beauty of horror at the expense of logic and plot. It's a celebration of superficiality, as pretentious and vacuous as its subject matter... or is it? As monstrous greed and ambition plague an industry where purity has a brutally short shelf-life before it's devoured by envy and success from within and without, The Neon Demon might just stand as one of the most honest semi-autobiographies ever filmed. I just have no idea if I like it or not.

Ghostbusters
Personally I'd have preferred a sequel set in the original films' universe 30 years on to a remake, but taken on its own terms Ghostbusters: The XX Generation acquits itself admirably. Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold cherry-pick the sturdiest structural beats from the '84 vintage to establish their team and, if anything, improve on the rest: the villain here, while thinly sketched, is far more satisfying than Gozer and the ill-defined Zuul. The cast are delightful, with Leslie Jones making the most of her character's better thought-out integration into the team compared to Ernie Hudson's token tacking-on, and Kate McKinnon licking her proton whip-gun doohickeys is a sight I won't forget in a hurry. As always with Feig, some of the humour doesn't land, it's too long and there's some downright sloppy editing, but if Ghostbusters (2016) is ultimately a ramshackle romp that sometimes doesn't work, then it can at least hold its head high and proudly claim to be the equal of Ghostbusters (1984).

Star Trek Beyond
What a difference a JJ makes. The man who boldly went and rebooted Star Trek for the 21st century may not be perfect, but he could direct Justin Lin under the table any day. Lin's Trek is a baffling, disjointed mess: characters have to yell screeds of expository dialogue to explain what's going on in the action scenes, and the fun that permeated every frame of Abrams' first film has been blown out of the airlock along with Gene Roddenberry's founding principles. There's little sense of camaraderie, tension or what's at stake, and it's so gloomily-shot for the most part that it's more deserving of the title "Into Darkness" than its predecessor. Thematically and aesthetically desolate, the only thing this Star Trek is Beyond is hope.

Jason Bourne
With Jason Bourne's arc neatly tied up in the first film, and then again in the third, a fourth excuse to have him efficiently beating up civil servants while avoiding CCTV cameras was always going to be a bit of a push. Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse toss off a humdrum truth for Bourne to uncover this time, and pack him off through all the same motions to the point where he's become as clich├ęd as that other JB guy, but without the fun. The film moves like a shark (few people shoot tippity-tapping on a PC as thrillingly as Paul Greengrass) and it's great to see Vincent Cassel on villainous form, but this is an unmemorable instalment that squanders the chance to push the genre like its predecessors did. Furthermore, it has been unacceptable to accompany your end credits with Moby since 2002. Like its permanently brow-furrowing hero, the Bourne franchise simply cannot move on.

Finding Dory
It's a sign that Pixar have spoiled us too much over the years by repeatedly and flawlessly executing the search and/or rescue plot blueprint, when even something as delightful as Finding Dory feels like a stop-gap between better films. The lack of novelty value here means stronger character arcs are required to deliver another masterpiece, but both Dory and Marlin's inner journeys feel underdeveloped and forced. That said, there isn't a character that isn't exquisitely realised, and the ante-upping of the bonkers final act pretty much papers over the cracks in the formula. It's Pixar by numbers, but what beautifully arranged numbers.

Sausage Party
MAYBE IF I FUCKIN' YELL THIS AT THE TOP OF MY FUCKIN' VOICE AND SAY FUCK EVERY OTHER FUCKIN' WORD AND GENERALLY BE AS FUCKIN' OBNOXIOUS AS I FUCKIN' CAN THEN MAYBE JUST FUCKIN' MAYBE I'LL HAVE WRITTEN THE FUNNIEST FUCKIN' THING THIS YEAR!!!!!!! OR MAYBE I'LL JUST COME ACROSS AS A HORNY DOPE-ADDLED FUCKIN' TEENAGER WHO THINKS THAT REPEATEDLY FUCKIN' SHOUTIN' FUCK IS AN ADEQUATE FUCKIN' SUBSTITUTE FOR, YOU KNOW, ACTUAL FUCKIN' JOKES!!!! AND MAYBE I HAD THE FUCKIN' EMBRYO OF A VAGUELY FUCKIN' INTERESTING IDEA FOR WHAT I WAS WRITING BUT THE FUCKIN' ASININITY OF THE FUCKIN' EXECUTION MEANT YOU COULD ACTUALLY FUCKIN' FEEL YOURSELF GETTING MORE FUCKIN' STUPID THE LONGER IT DRAGGED ON, MOTHERFUCKER!!! I DON'T KNOW!!! FUUUUUCK!!!